Reallocation of school lottery funds advanced

Lawmakers gave first-round approval April 9 to a bill that would reallocate lottery fund dollars dedicated to education.

LB519, introduced by Cedar Rapids Sen. Kate Sullivan, would direct funds to establish competitive innovation grant programs. Sullivan said that all current uses of lottery dollars dedicated to education, known as the Education Innovation Fund, are set to expire on June 30, 2016.

“There is wide support and a belief that we have a quality education system in this state,” she said. “Is it perfect? Absolutely not—and that’s why we need to try to find ways to make it better.”

An Education Committee amendment, adopted 33-0, replaced the bill. It would provide for the state Board of Education to establish a competitive innovation grant program with funding from the Nebraska Education Improvement Fund, created by LB519. An appropriation of $3 million would be transferred from the Education Innovation Fund to the Education Improvement Fund for fiscal year 2016-17.

Money in the Education Improvement Fund would be allocated as follows:
• 1 percent to the state Department of Education for the Expanded Learning Opportunity Grant Program Act;
• 10 percent to the state Board of Education for competitive innovation grants;
• 10 percent to the Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education for competitive innovation grants;
• 9 percent to the Community College Gap Assistance Program;
• 8 percent to the Excellence in Teaching Cash Fund; and
• 62 percent to the Nebraska Opportunity Grant Fund.

Grantees could be a school district, an educational service unit (ESU) or a combination of entities that includes at least one school district or ESU. The board would award grants to applicants that are deemed innovative and to have a high chance of success.

The state Board of Education could designate an innovation project as a best practice. That program then could be included as a best practice allowance under the Tax Equity and Educational Support Opportunities Act, beginning with school year 2021-22.

The bill also would provide for the Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education to establish a similar competitive innovation grant program. Grantees could be a public postsecondary education institution or a combination of entities that include at least one participating public postsecondary education institution.

Norfolk Sen. Jim Scheer opposed LB519, saying it would direct too much funding away from K-12 education.

“If you want to challenge schools to do a better job, you can’t take away their funding,” he said. “We have to allow them to be innovative and try something new. Without it, we’re going to have the same thing day after day and expect different results. That just won’t work.”

Sullivan introduced an amendment, adopted 31-0, which increased to 20 percent the proposed funding to the state Board of Education for competitive innovation grants. It also removed funding for a similar competitive innovation grant program that the bill initially proposed for the Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education.

Provisions of LB527, also introduced by Sullivan, were incorporated by the committee amendment. These would change the terms for loan forgiveness under the Enhancing Excellence in Teaching Program, decreasing the annual amount forgiven from $3,000 to $1,500. Those qualifying for accelerated loan forgiveness would see a decrease from $6,000 to $1,500 the first year and to $3,000 in subsequent years.

The committee amendment also incorporated provisions of several other bills, including:
• LB380, introduced by Lincoln Sen. Adam Morfeld, which would direct the Education Committee to study the affordability of postsecondary education and explore strategies to address the high cost of education;
• LB379, introduced by Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz, which would provide after school and out-of-school programming, funded through school-community partnership grants; and
• LB36, also introduced by Bolz, which would provide funding to community colleges to award gap assistance to students in eligible non-credit accumulating programs.

Bolz said LB36 would contribute to expanding the skilled workforce in Nebraska.

“Demand is great from employers and students for postsecondary programs that fulfill specific workforce needs,” she said. “However, financial aid is not available for these short-term certificate programs currently.”

Following the adoption of two technical amendments, senators voted 34-0 to advance the bill to select file.

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